Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Today’s Gospel passage is one of the least understood and least appreciated lessons in all of Jesus’ teachings. It is impractical at best, and dangerously naive at worst. How can Jesus say not to resist an evildoer? Without resistance, without conflict, there has never been positive change in human society. If we are not to resist, if we are to turn the other cheek, then how can we rise up as a people in the face of grave injustice and oppression?
This passage is typically understood to say that when someone does evil against you, you are to do nothing in response. Christians should renounce their rights to revenge and instead turn the other cheek. Passively accept the beatings and insults of the enemy because so long as you do not become violent, you remain morally pure.
But this is a heresy! It is a half-truth. When we stand by such a narrow interpretation, as the Church has for many centuries, we make our beds with oppression. This traditional interpretation is a way of deceiving and placating the masses. It encourages the oppressed to remain powerless, and the powerful to continue their abuse. It does nothing to break the vicious cycle of violence, neither for the victim nor for the perpetrator.
This view of Jesus’ teaching falls into the mistake that the only possible responses to evil are fight or flight. When someone attacks, you either attack back, or you do nothing but run -- either retaliation or complete surrender.
But this is exactly the mentality that Jesus tries to break in Matthew 5. Jesus offers us a Third Way.
Fighters understand that evil will not change all by itself, and that confrontation can be holy. We cannot allow violence and oppression to become normal or continue unquestioned. But they fail to recognize what the “flighters” do. They understand that violence can accomplish very little positive change. Violence begets more violence and plants seeds of hate for generations to come. Responding without violence is a powerful witness that love can conquer hate. But those who passively flight have no way to stop their attackers from being violent.
So how can we capture the best of these methods? What is Jesus’ Third Way? The way to combat violence and oppression is both “assertive” and “nonviolent” (Wink, The Powers That Be). Jesus has no interest in increasing the hate, violence, and destruction in the world. But Jesus also has no interest in increasing the tragic suffering of oppressed peoples everywhere.
How do we see this Third Way in the Gospel itself? Why should you believe what I’m saying? Matthew 5:38-41 gives at least three examples of Jesus’ Third Way of peaceful resistance. For now, I’ll highlight only the most famous: “Turn the other cheek.”
Matthew 5:39 reads, “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Now I’m going to need a volunteer to come forward and help me explain this.
1st century culture was heavily focused on honor and shame. When you entered a dispute with someone, there were honorable and shameful ways of fighting. First of all, you always engage with your right hand first. The left hand was reserved for personal sanitation, as it is in many cultures.
This is my right cheek.
Show everyone where your right hand is.
Do what you need to do to (pretend to) hit me on the right cheek with your right hand.
Rather than punching, we are talking about a backhanded slap. Slaps were only used to shame and denigrate. The Rev. Dr. Walter Wink explains, “The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place” (The Powers That Be).
So if you are insulted and shamed with a backhand slap, and you turn the other cheek, what message does that send to your oppressor? Does it say that you surrender? That you are passive and refuse to do anything out of line? No!
Turning the other cheek is a refusal to be denigrated. It is a refusal to be shamed. It is a way of standing up and saying, “You cannot treat me that way. I am your equal.” Dr. Wink says again, “This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship.” By turning the other cheek, you have destroyed the master’s most powerful weapons: shame and submission.
This was not a way to avoid trouble, of course. If you defy someone in a position of authority, especially one who has already become violent, you are likely to face more violence. But in turning the other cheek, you have asserted your dignity and humanity in the face of those who would ignore and suppress them. You have remained peaceful without sitting by passively.
You have challenged the systems of oppression and violence that keep us in bondage. Assertiveness, conflict, and confrontation are not evil. Conflict can actually be means of grace. Confrontation can become an opportunity for opponents to repent. If someone insults or harms you and you subvert the cycle of violence, you put the attack on their heels. You refuse to play their game of fight or flight, and that will either make them angrier, or make them pause and reconsider what they are doing and why.
Of course, this is not easy. Our hearts are conditioned toward violence. Human beings learn to retaliate with violence from a very young age, and these natural impulses are very difficult to fight. It takes prayer, discipline, and training to practice peace. It is much easier in the short term not to be a peace with one another. But Jesus calls us to something greater than the easy way. “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).
Think about the countless stories of organized resistance during the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference taught these very techniques of peaceful, nonviolent resistance to oppression. They were trained not to retaliate against police brutality or white supremacist groups. They had to learn the art of peace. It was not natural.
But look at how much it accomplished. We hear story after story of marchers singing and chanting before, during, and after their attack and arrest. This is the same spirit as “turn the other cheek.” When someone strikes you and you sing, how are they to respond? How must they feel? Do they think they have shamed you into submission? Obviously not!
They followed Jesus’ Third Way of Peace - assertive and nonviolent. I think of the great old spiritual and protest song, “We Shall Not Be Moved” (see Mavis Staples' version in the video above). Imagine singing this at segregated lunch counters, or at an integrated public school, or on the steps of city hall after the most recent incident of police brutality, or together with undocumented immigrants whose livelihood is threatened by our government. The opportunities for resistance are as numerous as the sin and evil that fill our world. But we Jesus gives us a higher calling. Respond in peace. Live in love. And do not back down.
We shall not
We shall not be moved
We shall not
We shall not be moved
Like a tree that’s planted by the water
We shall not be moved
Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
-----. Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa: Jesus’ Third Way. Philadelphia: New Society, 1987.